Are Online Ads Ever Desirable?

The theme for Forrester’s upcoming Consumer Forum is “Humanizing The Digital Experience.” What makes a digital experience more human? First, it must be useful. Second, it must be usable to the point that the technology fades into the background. Finally, the best digital experiences are desirable enough to stimulate action (e.g. buying a product, or telling a friend about the experience).

After years of clumsy and cold web sites, examples of desirable experiences are starting to pop up everywhere. Witness and NASCAR’s PitCommand (a mobile application in which fans can track in real-time the speed, RPM, throttle, position, and time of their favorite driver). These are great, but can every online experience be desirable? What about when a company is trying to sell you something?

Is there such thing as a desirable banner ad?

Many “undesirable” ads get noticed, precisely because they are obnoxious, loud, or otherwise impossible to ignore. The jingle is the classic proof point (my favorite local earworm goes like this “Bernie & Phil’s – Quality, Comfort, and Price – That’s nice!). Undesirable online ads are annoying eyeblasters, the ads that you have to click through to enter the site, and (of course) the ubiquitous pop-up.

My colleagues and I came up with a few ads that we think clear the desirable bar. Often, these ads are funny, but some also offer an educational or emotional value. The best of these ads also recognize that the ad is part of the larger experience, in which the ad piques enough interest to direct someone to a useful, usable, and desirable site. Some favorites are:

1) Reebok’s Terry Tate commercials. Reebok is mentioned almost as an after-thought, but Terry’s hilarious depiction of an unconventional corporate executive (The Office Linebacker) sure makes this memorable. Couple this with some in-store signage featuring Terry Tate and Reebok shoes, and you have aided recognition at the point-of-purchase. Pure marketing genius.
2) Smirnoff’s Tea a web site for anyone who wants to watch Amagansett preppies in a rap video. Again, there’s very little mention of the product, but it’s viral nature could make the soft sell more effective.
3) Procter & Gamble’s CoverGirl which once ran a banner ad encouraging women to “Get Color Matched”. The ad linked to’s online beauty consultation where woman answered questions about their hair color, skin tone, and make-up preferences. CoverGirl used this profile to personalize the site and follow-up emails to the individual.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. What are some of your favorite desirable (and undesirable) online ads?

More importantly, should online marketers always strive to create desirable ads, or is there still a place online for obnoxious marketing?

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re: Are Online Ads Ever Desirable?

My favorite ads are text ads, because you can ignore them pretty easily. Generally speaking, I also don't mind ads when they become content, when the agenda is clearly stated -- but these examples are contingent upon your being able to opt-out or TiVo-out. Think of radio...the songs played. Disregarding the standard commercials, the songs are sort of like ads because they are essentially promotional content assets for content companies (and artists). I don't mind the songs, but I clearly avoid most radio because I usually have little patience for the ads.

re: Are Online Ads Ever Desirable?

Your comment about non-traditional ads is an interesting one, Max. The line between content (song, show) and ads is blurred more than ever, as anyone who watches American Idol knows. I just saw that Georgia Pacific launched a really funny short film series entitled "Brawny Academy" ( It's basically about grown men who attend a boot camp to clean up their slovenly ways. Is this type of format better suited to interactive marketers, especially in today's environment of broadband and rich media? Will the eyeblaster and other more overt online ads go the way of the dodo?

re: Are Online Ads Ever Desirable?

In my mind, online ads of days gone by were usually scorned because they failed to engage the viewer with a message/offer that was: (a) relevant, (b) timely, (c) interesting, and (d) actionable.While many advertisers are still stuck in this old-school rut, at least a few are effectively using the channel to drive business results. How?They've learned to research their audience and their behaviors, target their ads on a niche basis, and avoid a shotgun blast of random placements (relevance). They're using state-of-the-art ad serving tools to ensure the right ad is displayed at the right stage in the consumer buying cycle (timeliness). They're also collaborating with their agency partners to deploy large size, rich media ad formats that offer a much enhanced branding capability (interest). And they're encouraging consumers to take action -- often from within the ad itself with a form or tool but at least from the site's landing page (actionable).I see all this (and more) as I archive online ads on my hobby blog, After reviewing several thousand ads, I've pretty well seen it all -- the good, the bad, and the truly ugly.Coming full circle to your question, I'd agree that most online advertising is far from desireable (which is a very high bar to set for any advertising medium). Some of it is measurably effective, probably a more realistic aspiration for advertisers. And a small but growing amount of it is outright terrific.Please visit my archive, explore the tagged and categorized collection, and then let's continue this discussion!

re: Are Online Ads Ever Desirable?

I'm not totally sure I see the connection between being human and being desirable. OK, maybe for Max (with the glasses and the goatee and all), but what about the rest of us poor slobs?! ;-)Seriously: it's OK to talk about ads, as they are the most public evidence we have of a company's character, but those are manufactured and highly tuned prsentations.BUT: I went to (yet another) company the other day that does zero advertising and is one of the most trusted and loved brands around.I'm not sure that the humanity of an organization should come from its ads. It should be evident in its ads...but it has to come from the actual humans. If you want to inject humanity, don't do an ad campaign. Do a relationship campaign that has ads as a part of it.